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This document covers anthropology great and little traditions; nms complex;sacred complex;
sanskritization; universalization and parochilization Great and little traditions
1. The concepts of `little' and `great' traditions were first used by Robert Redfield. These
concepts were proposed in his book Peasant Society and Culture (1956) and were used in his
studies of the Mexican communities.
2. The concepts were used to study social change in distant regions. Milton Singer and Mckim
Marriot applied this conceptual framework to the Indian Cultural Setting in order to analyse
social change in Indian society.
3. Redfield holds that every civilization is composed of two traditions.
On the one end are the traditions of `elite' and `thinking class' while on the other there are
traditions of unlettered peasants. The elite traditions emanate from urban centres and their
temples, educational institutions and so and are called the Great Traditions. The traditions of the
peasant communities may be called the Little Tradition.
Thus every society consists of a Great Community and Little Communities. The traditions,
behavioural patterns, customs and rites, rituals and festivals of these communities may also be
termed as Great and Little.
In the Indian society, in the traditional sense, Hindu community is the Great Community and
it carries a `great culture' and social structure. The source of its Great Traditions may be traced
back to its ancient thinkers and philosophers and the scholarly works and epics and treatises
composed by them. Such Great Traditions are found not only among the Hindus of India but also
among those who have settled elsewhere in the world.
Within the boundaries of this Great Community and Great Traditions come a number of Little
Communities and their Little Traditions. These communities are found in the rural and tribal
segments of the society. This rural-urban dichotomy adds variety to a people's culture.
4. Let us now analyse the meaning and implications of the two terms - Tradition and Little
Tradition : Tradition is the transmitted value and behaviour of any community which has
been persisting over a period of time. Traditions are respected, exemplified and referred to
frequently. In the process of socialization members of a community are taught to appreciate,
revere and respect the traditions.
Traditions do not remain static: they are not like stagnant water. Old or previous traditions
fade away and become extinct and new ones continue to evolve and be adopted by a community.
External as well as internal factors, both, contribute to the changes in tradition.
Tradition has a certain value. It is not just any custom. Indeed a society has many customs
which may prevail even if they have no vaIue. Max Radin in the Encyclopaedia of Social
Sciences comments thus:
`Strictly and properly speaking......a tradition is not a mere observed fact like an existing
custom; it is an idea which expresses a value judgement. A certain order or
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arrangement is held desirable. The maintenance of the tradition is the assertion of this judgement.
It produces in a nation or in a group an exalted group consciousness and is therefore most
effective in creating groups or in re-establishing them.'
Let us now look at the concept of the little community Redfield describes it as a small group
of people which carries all the elements of community life as a result of living together.
According to Redfield the little community is a human whole, which is the smallest unit of the
entire mankind. This `human whole' has been the main and chief form of human life in the entire
history of mankind. The discipline of anthropology has studied, over a hundred years of its
existence, this type of community more than any other through field work.
5. Redfield in his book Little Community (1955) has described some of the most distinctive
features of the Little Community. They are
A. Distinctiveness : Distinctiveness manifests itself in common culture and
collective\communal consciousness. Because of this distinctiveness, the members of a Little
Community realize as to who belong to their own group and who do not.
B. Small Size: Little Communities are small sized in terms of population. If the population of
a little community increases to an extent where every member is not able to identify and
recognise every other, and where personal relationships are difficult to maintain, a Little
Community ceases to be a little Community in the pure and classical sense of the term.
C. Cultural homogeneity: The most distinctive feature of a Little Community is its cultural
homogeneity. The members of a Little Community share the cultural features in terms of
language, dress pattern, food and food habits, lifestyle and world view. The members of a Little
Community have a strong tendency of cultural emulation, every succeeding generation maintains
almost the same culture patterns which minimizes the scope and possibilities of social cultural
changes and this, in turn, is largely responsible for the maintenance of cultural homogeneity.
D. Self-sufficient economy: Since most of the Little Communities live in relative isolation
they are able to maintain a self sufficient economy.
A number of social cultural anthropologists have utilized and applied this approach of
Redfield in studying folk and tribal communities.
6. The Little and the Great Traditions, exist independently to a certain extent. But they also
interact with each other and maintain a certain level of relationship. In the Indian context, the
pantheon, festivals, rituals, literature, dance, music etc. whose sources are religious epics like
Mahabharata, Gita, Ramayana and Upanishads are based on Great Traditions. The folklore,
religio-magical practice, customs and rituals whose references are not found in religious epics
and which are transmitted orally constitute Little Traditions.
Saraswati (1975) has preferred to call Great Traditions as Shastriya traditions. In the
contemporary Indian society, Islamic and Christian communities too may be considered as great
Civilization or social structure or tradition grows in two stages - Orthogenetic and
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CIVILIZATION (Structure of Tradition)
Orthogenetic or primary Heterogenetic (Indigenous evolution) (Contact with other
cultures and civilizations}
All civilizations start from a primary or orthogenetic level of cultural organisation. In course of
time, they develop not only through internal growth, but more important, through contact with
other civilizations . This may be called a heterogenetic process.(Let knowledge come to us from
all sides: Rig Veda). The direction of this change presumably is from folk or peasant to urban
cultural structure and social organisation.
Usually the urban elite consider their traditions as `beliefs' and little traditions as
Redfield points out that the world view of India's little traditions is polytheistic, magic
oriented and unphilosophical.
7. Let us now briefly examine a few differences between the Great Tradition and the Little
Great traditions are usually mentioned in original religious epics. Their range is very wide,
usually national in nature. These are associated with the elite, thinking, and reflective few of
urban class. Moreover, they are usually organized and norms, rituals, etc. are largely clear cut
and unambiguous. The Great Traditions are transmitted from one generation to the other through
texts; sometimes these are referred to as `elite' tradition.
Little Traditions are mostly oral and are followed as mere beliefs not necessarily based on
rationality; these are mostly localised and related with rural, unlettered, folk, tribal or peasantry.
These are believed to be usually unorganized, haphazard and ambiguous, transmitted orally,
through oral literature.
8. We may now take up a few examples of the evolution and subsequent perpetuation of Great
Traditions in India. For example the Ramayana was originally composed by Rishi Valmiki in
Prakrit. It was recomposed by Tulsidas in a north Indian dialect of Hindi and spread through
wanderers, singers and mendicants, and then translated into various other languages and dialects.
Yet, even in its regional variations, especially in the enactment of Ramlila, one comes across
pieces of poetry and prose interspersed by original poetry in Avadhi dialect as used by Tulsidas.
The flow of great Traditions towards Little Traditions and vice-versa has been a familiar
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process in Indian civilization. But, it is also true that the extent or degree of this flow, from Great
to Little has always been much greater than the vice-versa.
Great to Little ________________________\ (more) /
Little to Great /________________________ \ (much less)
9. Despite this unevenness of `exchange' the periodic revival of interest in things `folk' even
among the most sophisticated urban elite is not without significance. Rural dress patterns,
popularity of folk songs and folk theatre (nautanki, etc.), religio- magical practices like hanging
painted earthen pots on the exterior of the newly constructed houses (to avoid evil eye) etc. may
be taken as the examples of flow of little traditions towards great traditions.
10. However little traditions and great traditions can not be neatly differentiated along a
rural-urban axis. Both kinds of traditions may be found in villages and in the cities in different
forms. Indeed some even object to the indiscriminate use of the expressions Great and Little
Traditions since it is not possible to rigidly differentiate between the two.
11. Mandelbaum, speaking about the nature of participation in the Indian tradition makes a very
important comment :
`.....the `great tradition' is essentially a convenient abstraction. It is not followed in its pure
literary form in the village or for that matter among city folk either. There is.... the vast corpus of
scripture and literature, a reservoir from which elements may be selected for prominent notice
during a particular period or among a special group.'
Supplementing the view of Mandelbaum , S.C.Dube raises an important point. `Is it proper to
use such a static definition of `great tradition' when, in the concepts as have been formulated by
Redfield, the process of interchange between the two traditions is a continuous and dynamic
one?' The `great tradition', according to Redfield himself, is always changing, expanding, taking
in new elements, and loosing old ones. How then can it be described in terms of books which
were completed hundreds and thousands of years ago? Redfield apparently realizes the
difficulties involved in such a specific definition of the `great tradition’. For this reason he makes
no clear-cut statement as to what kind of things should be judged to constitute the great tradition,
but prefers to speak in generalized, abstract terms. But, if one is going to use these concepts in
the analysis of data with any kind of scientific accuracy, one needs to know their meaning more
precisely. And here lies its main weakness.
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12. S.C. Dube (1965) has expressed the view that Indian cultural realities are too complex to be
understood through a mere `bipolar model' of Great and Little traditions. His view of traditions is
`multi-polar.' He has suggested a six fold classification of traditions as follows :
1. The Classical Tradition 2. The Regional Traditional 3. The Local Tradition 4. The Western
Tradition 5. The Emergent National Tradition; and 6. The sub-cultural Traditions of special
The classical traditions are rooted in mythology, religious lore and historical past. Most of
these are derived from Sanskritic texts but they are by no means the only source.
The regional traditions refer to the territorial spread of certain culture traits and complexes. It
refers to spatial sharing of cultural elements that give a distinctiveness and identity to the
regional culture. Many of the regional traditions may be found to be shared by all the people
irrespective or religious differences.
The local traditions are confined to local groups and to a smaller territory. Many of the
traditions of small scale primitive tribal groups may be put under this category.
The western traditions are the result of the impact of westernization on Indian society. It
should be understood in terms of ideological spheres as well as technological spheres.
The emergent national traditions are related to the emergence of a strong national
consciousness. It has given rise to nativistic, revivalistic, reinterpretational and vitalistic trends.
The sub-cultural traditions of special groups refer to the `special' traditions of such groups as
the ruling families, the bureaucracy, and the landed aristocracy. These groups have been partly
governed by other traditions, but partly they have always had separate norms and traditions of
their own.
13. Yogendra Singh (1973) rightly comments that the various levels of traditions no doubt offer a
wide scope for the study of change but the principle on which they have been classified is again
ad hoc and a few other attempts, beside Dube's multiple classification of traditions or cultural
patterns in India , also suffer from similar limitations.
14. These traditions do not function in isolation; each one significantly influences the others. A
study of the dynamic aspects of their interaction is necessary to understand adequately the
contemporary cultural scene in India. Moreover, maintenance of cultural continuity through
mutual existence of different types of traditions has been the hallmark of the cultural process in
the Indian civilization. Millions of Hindus pay respect and worship at the `mazar' or sufi saints
but this does not dilute their `Hindutva'.
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Similarly, the presence of numerous Muslim musicians, vocalists as well as instrumentalists,
in our great Shastriya Sangeet may be taken as a good example of continuity in our civilization.
Music, one of the most hated things in the orthodox interpretation of Islam, along with Saraswati
Aradhna has always been a pleasantly striking feature with hundreds of our deeply religious
Muslim musicians of Shastriya Sangeet.
Likewise, magic and medicine have coexisted. Magic, or more precisely religio- magical
beliefs and practices, have largely been a part of `little traditions' whereas formal medicine or
pharmacoepia is a textual thing like the Ayurveda system of medicine or modern allopathy. Even
in highly modernized families, when medicine fails, recourse is taken to magic and religion.
They are used alternatively by some people to meet different situations at different times. The
great tradition of the urban world has not displaced the little traditions of the village. `Interaction
between the two has led to a fusion and interpenetration. The modernizing processes and the
traditional forms do not necessarily clash.' Instead, what we come across is `modernization of
I. What is NMSC Complex?
1. It is an anthropological model of study and investigation. It may also be called the
cultural-ecological model.
2. It was developed by the famous Anthropologist L.P. Vidyarthi while studying the Maler
3. It is based on the following facts :
A. There is a constant interaction between nature, man and spirit all the time in Tribal India. B.
Indeed the culture of a people is moulded by the environment and there is constant interaction
between the two. C. It is this cultural ecological inter-action that produces all the institutions,
attitudes, rites, rituals etc. of a people.
II. What is the importance of this model of investigation?
1. Different people have different ways of looking at the environment and adapting themselves to
it. The model merely says that we should investigate why the tribals behave as they do , with the
help of this model. 2. We would then be in a position to plan and formulate developmental
schemes suited to them.
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3. Very often we find resistance from the tribals even when we try to improve their lives. This is
because we tend to forget the nice balance that exists between man, nature and spirit in their
environment and they would not like this balance to be disturbed. 4. This balance actually meets
both the individual and social requirements of the people in a particular area. They are in a
position to solve their practical problems in their habitat and so do not like to change their habitat
on the name of development.
III. The NMSC illustrated with reference to the Maler Habitat.
1. The Malers are a primitive tribe of shifting cultivators inhabiting the Rangmahal hills of Bihar.
2. Their economic life is based on the forest , parts of which they slash and burn in order to
cultivate. 3. This manner of shifting cultivation which they call Khallu determines all their social
institutions and mental attitudes. The forest, their social life and religion (NMSC) are all
integrated. (Thus in certain tribal villages certain trees are sacred. Birds come in droves to those
trees and eat the fruits and then fertilise the fields with their droppings. The land maintains the
tribal, the tribal maintains the tree, the tree maintains the bird and the bird fertilises the land!)
(Refer to the village Kokkare Bellur; and the film Bili Hendthi. In the village ,Kokkare Bellur,
Karanataka, the villagers treat the migratory birds, the cranes, with respect. They do not like
curious visitors to misbehave with the birds. In the film, Bili Hendthi, an old woman cries her
heart out and curses her white daughter-in-law for desecrating the gravestones of her husband .
The white woman wanted to build a road and while doing so ran her bulk dozers over the grave
of her husband ).
4. A. The Malers believe in different types of spirits. They think that these spirits influence all
their activities - their entire life. B. These spirits are of two types : benevolent and malevolent.
The benevolent spirits are responsible for health, wealth and increased yield from land etc. The
malevolent spirits cause sickness, abortions, death and natural calamities. C. Controlling both
types of spirits is the Gosain. He is the intermediary or bridge between man and the spirits. D.
The religion of the Maler consists of propitiating these spirits. The Gosain is worshipped in order
to mediate with them.
5. Thus the Maler habitat is a close interaction between their shifting cultivation, their social
institutions and the spirits. Nature and Spirit exert a profound influence on the Maler.
IV. Significance of the NMSC for Anthropology :
1. Before implementing any plan for tribal development, study the NMSC of the region. And
educate the people on the advantages of development. Without doing this, disturbing the
status-quo will only provoke the anger and resistance of the tribals. No
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one is saying that tribals must be left to their way of life where this way of life is primitive and
leads to misery. But the new model must be explained carefully and only when there is willing
participation in development by the people , will development work. Otherwise it is so much
money down the drain.
2. The Great tradition is not always successful against the Little tradition which has a way of
fighting back. This is particularly true in the case of the food gathering, hunting tribes, shifting
cultivators and other simple societies.
3. Development should go with happiness for the tribal.
1. Important sacred cities like Gaya, Varanasi, Srirangam etc., play an important part in the
preservation and continuity of a people's traditions. At these places there is a rich interaction
between the Great and Little Traditions.
2. Study of sacred places in India was inspired by similiar studies undertaken by the Chicago
scholars like Redfield, Singer and Marriot. They gave the theoretical model for the study of the
inter-play of the two traditions at sacred places. This model provides the frame work for the
study of the folk and peasant communities in India.
Redfield's concepts of the Great and Little Traditions helped us to understand many dimensions
of Indian culture.
He says that in every civilisation there is a class of practitioners who help to maintain the
continuity of contacts between the Great Tradition and the Little Traditions.
Using these theoretical propositions Vidhyarthi, himself a product of the Chicago school ,
studied the sacred city of Gaya. In this study he developed a set of analytical concepts and
descriptive terms to describe a sacred city as a part of Indian civilization.
Gaya is a pilgrim centre and Hindus are expected to go there and perform the Shraddhas or
ceremonies for their dead ancestors. The priests here perform the role of promoting the contacts
between the two traditions. The priests , the sacred texts and sacred places are all important
factors in the continuity of traditions and maintenance of culture.
The sacred city has three concepts or constituents: sacred geography, sacred performances, and
sacred specialists. These three concepts conceived collectively, are termed a Sacred Complex.
The sacred specialists of a place of pilgrimage maintain a distinct style of life and transmit
certain elements of the Great Tradition to the rural population of India . This they do by
popularising certain texts, by organising pilgrimage and by officiating as the ritual and temple
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The classification of the sacred phenomena i.e. sacred geography, sacred performances and
sacred specialists is applicable not only to Gaya but, indeed, to all the sacred places of Hindu
pilgrimage. Both Vidhyarthi (1961) and Cohn and Marriot (1958) have pointed out that these
places and the network of pilgrimages are functionally important in the integration of Indian
3. Sacred geography
Among the three basic components, sacred geography has been further classified into zones,
segments, and clusters of sacred centres.
Gaya contains a complex of hundreds of sacred objects and places located within the sacred
Kshetra (region) revered by all Hindus. Both in space and time the sacred geography
demonstrates the continuity of India's Great and Little traditions. It also exhibits several kinds of
combinations between Hindu and Buddhist traditions at different levels.
However, due to drastic changes in modern times the secular zone of Gaya has been
expanding at the cost of the shrinking sacred zone. This is evident when we see the many old and
dilapidated sacred objects where rest houses, parks, restaurants, etc. have come up.
Many sacred ceremonies are performed here but the one for which Gaya is famous in the
Hindu world is an elaborate form of sacrifices to ancestral spirits. This is known as Gaya
4. The part played by the Gayawal Brahmins in the transmission of traditions:
All the sacred performances are led by the Gayawal Brahmins - an orthodox priestly caste
following a highly ceremonialized and sanskritic life style greatly influenced by the Hindu Great
Tradition. The relationship of this sacred complex with the outside world is not one sided. The
sacred complex survives mainly on the sustenance derived from the latter.
The Gayawal priests have jajmani (patron-client relationship) relationships with well to do
patrons located in various parts of the Hindu universe. The construction of sacred buildings was
financed mainly by rich persons from all over the country. The same persons provide a
livelihood to the sacred specialists by holding elaborate sacred performances and giving them
valuable gifts.
5. A few observations on the Sacred Complex
The sacred complexes are the centres of civilization whereat pilgrims from different regions
of India, from different levels of culture interact; Saraswati (1982) raising a pertinent question
asks whether these heterogeneous pilgrims who interact in a sacred
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complex share in common the Brahminic concept of the sacred which has laid the foundation of
these centres.
Also do all of them interact fully and equally with the sacred phenomena operating at the
sacred centre?
In semitic religions, all those who interact at a place of pilgrimage, say Mecca or Jerusalem,
may belong to diverse linguistic regions and cultural strata, but they hold a common concept of
sacred and participate equally in sacred performances. This does not seem to be true with the
Hindu places of pilgrimage.
However it is also true that they serve importantly to integrate diverse cultural traditions into
a common bond of civilization.
6. Other studies of Sacred Complexes
Taking lead from Vidhyarthi a group of younger social anthropologists was attracted towards
this new field of research. Saraswati has made prominent contribution to this field through his
studies like the Holy City of Nimsar (1965), The Temple Organization in Gaya (1962), and
Kashi: Myth and Reality of a Classical Cultural Tradition (1975).
Among other contributions are Jha's, The Sacred Complex of Ratanpur (1978). Mohapatra's
Lingaraj Temple: Its structure and change, Morab and Goswami's Chamundeshwari Temple
(1975) and Chakravarti's Tarakeshwari Temple (1974).
Apart from his intensive study of Janakpur, following the theoretical model of Gaya, Jha also
tested certain hypotheses raised by Redfield, Singer, Vidyarthi and others. While Vidyarthi
developed the concept of Sacred Complex for studying the places of pilgrimage as a dimension
of Indian civilization, Marriot and Cohn developed the concepts of `Networks and Centres'
(1958) to study the channels of integration of Indian civilization. Thus, in Indian social
anthropology, the concepts of Sacred complex and Networks and Centres have become very
popular theoretical models for studying the traditional cities and places of pilgrimage as
dimensions of Indian civilization.
7.. Kashi
In his study of Kashi , Saraswati points out how multifarious traditions are present at this
place. It is no doubt a predominantly Brahmin complex. But it is also a complex of a much
bigger organisation of traditions which together is known as Indian Civilisation
At one place there is the Brahminic temple of Vishveswara but there is also the
non-Brahminic shrine of Agiyabeer. The textually learned Karmakandi, and the illiterate
untouchable Dom (people who burn the dead bodies are called the Doms) conduct